Achieving Scale for STEM Reform: Studying and Enhancing Undergraduate STEM Networks
Over the last 20 years, a substantial inventory of improvements in instructional materials and teaching practices has been developed with the primary goal of improving student learning and success in STEM disciplines. Although the inventory is large and varied and covers all disciplines within STEM, evidence suggests that it is underutilized. The nation is still striving to achieve STEM education reform at high scale. Current patterns of extramural support that stress grants to faculty members are often not effective in getting the improved materials and practices into broad use by STEM instructors. However, networking efforts have emerged as more effective in spreading innovative practices in STEM higher education. This project is investigating how the design of networks influences their effectiveness in spreading the use of effective teaching practices and materials.
This project is beginning with the fact that very little is known about networks beyond their role in facilitating change. It is studying four undergraduate STEM reform networks within three organizations that have different designs but a common purpose (undergraduate STEM reform). The project goal is to understand how the networks can be most effectively designed to spread innovations among network members and ultimately on the campuses where they are employed. Three research questions are being examined about undergraduate STEM education networks:
1. How do network members and network leaders understand or believe that network design affects the ability to achieve network goals?
2. What are the perceived benefits of participation in a network related to change for the individual network members and their campus?
3. How do networks form and how are they sustained in ways that help them achieve their goals?
The four networks being studied are: BioQUEST, Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), Science Education through New Civic Engagement and Responsibilities (SENCER), and Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). The literature used to frame the study is drawn from social network analysis and communities of practice. A mixed-methods study is being used to address these research questions using surveys of network participants and interviews with network leaders. The use of survey methodology to ask participants about network influences on their behavior is a frequently used approach that has proven to be extremely accurate and valid for understanding adoption of new practices by individuals and the impact of social networks (Everett Rogers, Diffusion of innovations, Free Press, 2003). The formation and sustaining of the networks will be studied through qualitative methods based on interviews of 125 network leaders. This same approach has been used with communities of practice and is the established approach for understanding these issues.
Intellectual Merit: This project is expected to provide useful information to undergraduate STEM reformers. It is evident that new strategies are needed to disseminate modern effective instructional practices and achieve more widespread change. Networks have emerged as one of the critical ways to achieve a broad spread of innovative practices. NSF is increasingly funding networks but without knowledge about best practices for network development or research about network design that can help achieve desired goals. Also, this study is expected to provide needed information about created or nonorganic networks and their ability to foster innovation and change. It will provide missing data about structuring networks to best support meeting their objectives and goals.
Broader Impacts: This project provides broader impacts to STEM undergraduate education reform in numerous ways, including partnerships among current networks and organizations that will use the report's guide and specific study of ways that social networks can be designed for both effectiveness and inclusiveness.